In recent months, we’ve had the very great pleasure of publishing lots of terrific stuff online—and we’ve covered a lot of ground, topically. From an epistolary piece that used the format of a student evaluation form as its scaffolding to a naturalistic piece about a recently returned veteran and his do-gooder brother-in-law, we’ve aimed to mix it up in this space. We’ve taken that to a new extreme this month, as we published “The Wormhole” by Kathleen Founds. It’s an epistolary story that includes a story-within-a-story and something lots of us are all too familiar with: a cover letter to a literary journal. We asked Founds about her process, about inhabiting multiple voices in a single piece, and about her forthcoming book When Mystical Creatures Attack!
Nate Brown: Let’s begin at the beginning or, at least, the beginning for folks who haven’t read your work before: Your collection of linked stories When Mystical Creatures Attack! will be published this fall. Can you talk about how that collection came together? Did you set out to write a collection of linked stories?
Kathleen Founds: I was in a coffee shop in Syracuse with my MFA thesis—a binder of stories—waiting for George Saunders. Naturally, I was there forty-five minutes early—who wants to show up late for a meeting with George Saunders? As I flipped through my binder, I noticed that I had a bunch of stories about teenage disaffection and angst and the sadness and hilarity of working at a rest home. I also had a bunch of stories about idealistic do-gooders who suffer from a family legacy of mental illness. Then I went into kind of a manic rush of excitement about how everything could fit together. I wrote NOVEL SMASH in giant letters in my notebook and began scribbling intently. When George Saunders showed up, he opened a bag of BBQ potato chips and kindly indulged my rambling about how I could connect the stories.
The disaffected teenage rest home employee became Janice Gibbs, and the depressed do-gooder became Janice’s high school English teacher, Laura Freedman. After I graduated from Syracuse, I taught writing at a technical school in the Ohio cornfields that specializes in truck driving certificates. On my days off, I worked on what I was ambitiously calling “my novel.” The narrative that evolved is the one that remains at the core of “When Mystical Creatures Attack!”: Ms. Freedman is an idealistic young high school teacher who has a nervous breakdown, then corresponds with her former students (Janice Gibbs & Cody Splunk) from an insane asylum.
NB: How’d the process of making the pieces function as a larger work go? Did you have to excise much or add a lot?
KF: Sixty pages from my MFA thesis made it into the 164 pages of When Mystical Creatures Attack! So, yes: I excised much and added a lot. After graduate school, I also drafted many stories about Janice, Cody, and Ms. Freedman that ended up on the cutting room floor. Desperately vying to make the book long enough to “count” as a novel, I would add new pages. Then I would compulsively polish the book back down to size. For three years, the book grew and shrank like an accordion.
NB: I can imagine that writing a story like this one is really tough because you have to inhabit the voice of two very strong yet opposed characters. Do you have affinities or sympathies for one character over another? And how do you go inhabiting both voices in the same story?
KF: I actually wrote this story in one sitting, in my drafty living room in Syracuse. With some of the stories in the collection (like “Virtue of the Month”), the writing process took seven years and felt like clawing my chest open, ripping out my heart, and stamping it on paper. Writing “The Wormhole” was easy and fun. When it was a hit in workshop, I was startled. Since it wasn’t super polished, I expected the chunk-of-meat in a bathtub of piranhas critique experience. But people made warm and enthusiastic remarks. When Mary Gaitskill gave her copy back to me, she had doodled hearts, stars, and flowers in the margin as a way to express her fondness for the story. Since the story came out so easily, I felt like I had cheated.
I think it was easy to write because Janice Gibbs and Cody Splunk are both versions of myself. Like Janice, I was a cynical, critical, intellectual, angst ridden teen girl. Like Cody, I was no stranger to unrequited love. I spent all of college desperately in love with boys who were not especially interested in me. Because I was never actually in a relationship with the objects of my affection, I was able to romanticize them. I imagined them as paragons of human excellence. I interpreted their character flaws as secret, complex virtues. I wrote them cheerful, thoughtful, letters, hoping that they would finally notice the purity of my heart and realize I was their soul-mate. So, yeah. It was pretty easy to slip into Cody’s voice.
NB: Ah, yes, the old piranhas-on-the-wound kind of workshop. Those are the worst, though they do make those rare, winning workshops feel particularly great. Now that you’re just about to publish your first book, what advice might you give to that earlier still-in-the-workshop version of yourself?
KF: I’d say: “Kathleen Founds. You burn to know if you have the super special secret amazing star burst of talent to write the genius novel that will spark a re-birth of wonder among the peoples of the world, so you approach workshop as a referendum on your talent. This is silly, because talent is not a fixed quality. You get more talented by working harder. Don’t respond to criticism by clenching your fist in the stairwell and muttering, maniacal villain style, “They fail to understand my genius!” Don’t respond to criticism by wallowing under your electric blanket, muttering, “I don’t have the super secret special talent, after all,” as tears roll down your face, then freeze, because you live in Syracuse. Respond to criticism by rolling up your sleeves, brewing a pot of coffee, and proclaiming, “I will work harder! I will put in the hours! I will write my ass off!” Then do a couple of cool karate kick jumps while wearing neon leggings and a headband while 80’s power jams play in the background. Then sit in your chair. Then write your ass off.”
The most productive workshop I had in graduate school was actually an informal exchange with my friend Erin. She was a year ahead of me in the program and her kindness and friendship saved me from surrendering to seasonal affective disorder and lying down on a glacier to die. Erin’s writing exchange rules were: give a bunch of warm and glowing feedback with one practical and specific suggestion for improvement. I love this approach. It saves time because it causes zero nervous breakdowns.
NB: This story is pretty humorous, but the stakes are also quite high. How do you strike a balance between writing a story that’s filled with levity and that’s interested in examining big ideas and problems like stalking, infatuation, love, and loss?
KF: Humor and sadness go together. Depressed people often have great senses of humor, and the funniest jokes are about death and despair. The rest home I worked at as a teenager was a wheelhouse of tragedy. Death, dementia, disability, despair. As Janice does in “The Un-game,” I once accidentally made residents cry in an attempt to facilitate a fun game. In letters to friends, I presented the story as tragi-comedy. The depth of the sadness made it funnier, and the humor made the sadness possible to bear.
Kathleen Founds has worked at a nursing home, a phone bank, a South Texas middle school, and a Midwestern technical college specializing in truck-driving certificates. She got her undergraduate degree at Stanford and her MFA at Syracuse. She teaches social justice themed English classes at Cabrillo College and lives in Marina, California, where she writes while her toddler is napping. Her fiction has been published in The Sun, Epiphany, Booth Journal, The MacGuffin, and Stanford Alumni Magazine. Her novel-in-stories, When Mystical Creatures Attack! won the 2014 John Simmons Short Fiction Award and will be published by University of Iowa Press in October. Her comics, children’s books, and beer-label designs can be found at kathleenfounds.com.